Traveling to Japan during New Year’s is a great chance to capture a rare glimpse into the modernization of traditional Japanese culture. It is a time when most Japanese people return home to partake in traditional ceremonies and festivities many of which travelers can get a chance to see and partake in themselves.
New Year’s is one of few occasions where you can see Japan a country known for its modern technological advances revert back to century old traditions. One of those traditions is Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the New Year. Virtually every shrine across Japan will be will be filled with people coming to pray, get O-mikuji (fortunes) and buy Omamori (charms). As a tourist you can partake in all these rituals and many shrines now offer O-mikuji in English and English descriptions of the Omamori. An Omamori exists for everything, from leg pain to traffic safety, and they make great souvenirs for friends and family. This is also one of the rare chances to see men dressed in full Kimonos because it is a relatively common practice for the New Year. Those lucky enough to be traveling on the second Monday in January, can see many women dressed in their Kimonos for Coming of Age Day, a national holiday for women who have turned 20 in the past year. To celebrate they dress in extravagant Furisode Kimonos and can be seen walking the streets nearly everywhere.
The end of the year is laden with different illumination displays across Japan. Millions of glittery lights comprise beautiful structures, walkways, and scenes that make for a truly memorable experience which are only viewable at this time of year. Some popular examples from across the country include: Tokyo Midtown, known for its “Starlight Garden” which is a lawn area bathed in blue light; the world famous Kobe Luminary, which started after the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake displays three-dimensional structures covered in lights; the Sapporo White Illumination, featuring artwork made up of up to 420,000 bulbs; the OSAKA Hikari Renaissance, stretching 1.9 kilometers is one of Japan’s longest illumination displays; and, finally, Tokyo Tower showcases various illumination displays including a 15 meter Christmas tree, and also offers a great night view of the city. There are many other illumination displays across Japan, so be sure to check with your local tourism board to find those that fit best with your travel plans.
While in general, Japanese stores tend not to heavily discount merchandise as much in the US, once a year, just after New Year’s, prices plummet and people flock to the department stores to get the deals. Some department stores even have their clerks stand on ladders and use microphones to yell sales campaigns which can make this a truly unique experience. One of the most enjoyable parts about shopping after New Year’s is Fukubukuro, a type of mystery bag often filled with last year’s left over merchandise. To the American ear this might not sound appealing, but often these bags are filled with items with a value far greater than the cost of the bag. The price of these bags vary, but the more expensive the bag the more expensive the content. Your biggest risk is that you just plain will not like the content of the bag, otherwise buying a Fukubukuro is like entering a lottery you cannot really lose, and a great way to have fun during the New Year’s season.
Perhaps one of the most enticing reasons to go to Japan during the New Year’s season is that it is the off season which makes flights and hotels cheaper. While some restaurants and shops may close for one day during this period, don’t worry, recently more stay open the whole time, especially in the cities. It is also a time when many Japanese people travel back to their home towns, making some of the cities less crowded. So if all the unique and wonderful things to do don’t convince you that New Year’s is a great time to visit Japan, then we hope that the cheaper flights, hotels and shopping will convince you.